As the month of Elul wanes, we are preparing. We prepare for the new moon, we prepare for Rosh Hashanah, and we prepare for the zombie invasion. I have it on good authority, as do you, that the onslaught is imminent. The alarm blares every morning — a shofar blast and a warning:
בִּקְרֹב עָלַי מְרֵעִים לֶאֱכֹל אֶת־בְּשָׂרִי
Bikrov ‘alai m’ray-im le’ekhol et-b’sari
|Evil ones draw near to me to consume my flesh.|
This line is taken from the second verse of Psalm 27, which is said every day from the first of Elul until Hoshana Rabbah. The tradition of its recitation is not mentioned in the Talmud, nor by any of the Geonim. The custom is not cited by the Rambam, nor can it be found in the Tur, the Shulḥan Arukh, or many later codes of Jewish Law. Its earliest appearance is in 1745 in Siddur Bet Yaakov by the German rabbi and talmudist Yaakov Emden.
The zombie — now enjoying a resurgence in popular culture — is an amalgamation of West African and Haitian Creole mysticism that gained footing in western folklore during the 19th century. But it wasn’t until George Romero’s now-classic 1968 film Night of the Living Dead that the idea of a flesh-eating zombie apocalypse became a sub-genre of the American consciousness.
Obviously Yaakov Emden was not thinking about zombies when he included the Psalm in the daily liturgy during the season of repentance. Nor were the biblical authors thinking about zombies when they crafted Psalm 27. Yet they use לֶאֱכֹל אֶת־בְּשָׂרִי (l’ekhol et b’sari) as an example of מִמִּי אִירָא (mimi ira’ )and מִמִּי אֶפְחָד (mimi ephḥad), those whom we should fear and dread. It is a dramatic, nightmarish foil to the redemptive focus of the Psalm, God as אוֹרִי וְיִשְׁעִי (Ohri v’yish’i), our light and help, our מָעוֹז־חַיַּי (Maoz Ḥaiyai), our stronghold. Still, every morning, I recite this Psalm and for a few desperate and distracted moments envision every fear, every flaw, and every failure of the past year coming to life as animated corpses, zombies hungry for my flesh.
And why shouldn’t I? As I engage in ḥeshbon ha’nefesh, the “accounting of the soul” before the High Holy Days, these fears, flaws, and failures eat away at me. It is a common enough expression in English — how often we describe our guilt, our jealousy, and our anger and say: It’s eating me up inside! Biblical commentaries often explain this line as an allusion to slander, citing Daniel 3 where the verb וַאֲכַלוּ (va’akhalu) is used to describe false accusations brought by the Chaldeans against the Jews, and Daniel 6 when the men who slander Daniel are thrown into the lion’s den along with their wives and children. The gruesome linguistic twist that those who “consume” Daniel with their words are in turn consumed by lions is no accident.
So too I believe that the language here, in our Psalm, should be understood as equally morbid and just as intentional. Even before Night of the Living Dead painted the metaphor in broad strokes, being called a zombie was the cultural equivalent of being called brainwashed or propagandized, a way of describing those who cannot or will not think for themselves. What could be more true? My enemy daily draws near to consume my flesh! My enemies are conformity, consumerism, and the quickness with which I cast aspersions on the character of my fellows simply so I can feel better about myself.
This Elul, I am trying to recite Psalm 27 every day, and as I do, to allow myself to feel just what eats me up inside. It is uncomfortable, but it is precisely this discomfort that helps me turn to God and, with honest confidence, continue the Psalm:
אֶת־פָּנֶיךָ יְהוָה אֲבַקֵּשׁ
Et panekha [Adonai] ‘avakesh
|[Adonai], I seek Your face!|
May this new year, 5772, be for all of us a year in which we — together with God’s help — keep the zombies at bay.
Jessica Minnen is an auror a rabbinical student at Hogwarts the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
“A D’var Tefillah on Zombies, Elul, and Psalms 27 by Rabbi Jessica Minnen” is shared by Jessica Minnen with a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International copyleft license.